CINCINNATI — A jury has found former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and ex-GOP chair Matt Borges guilty in the largest public corruption case in state history.
The jury delivered its verdict after just over nine hours of deliberation; in that time, jurors asked no questions of the court before reaching a decision.
As he left the courthouse Thursday after the verdict was read, Householder maintained his innocence and said he was surprised by the jury's decision.
“I was surprised by the verdict because I'm not guilty," Householder said, telling reporters that he would return home to his Perry County farm to plant summer crops and go fishing with his son. “I respect their decision but I don't agree with it."
When asked if taking the witness stand in his own defense was a bad decision, Householder said, "I think any time you get an opportunity to speak after waiting two and a half years to speak, you should speak.”
Householder and Borges both said they would appeal their racketeering conspiracy convictions, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The sentencing date has not been set, but will likely happen several months from now.
The verdict was, "not obviously what we expected," Borges said. "This fight is not over as far as I'm concerned. We're looking at our appeal options right now. Honestly I didn't think we would need to be considering those."
Jurors began deliberating on Wednesday in a nationally-watched public corruption trial involving one of the most powerful politicians in Ohio before his arrest.
Prosecutors accused ex-GOP chair turned lobbyist Borges and Householder both of being part of a complex scheme to funnel nearly $61 million in dark money from Akron-based First Energy Corp. and its subsidiary to elect Householder as speaker, solidify his power base, secure enough votes to pass a ratepayer-funded bailout of two nuclear plants and ensure it survived a ballot campaign to overturn it.
"This is a victory for Ohioans. You cannot sell the public trust ... it is not for sale," said U.S. Attorney Ken Parker after the verdict. "We will be relentless. We have a team in our office that will be relentless and will hold you accountable."
The two are convicted of participating in a racketeering conspiracy involving $61 million in bribes paid to pass and uphold a billion-dollar nuclear plant bailout
— US Attorney Southern District of Ohio (@SDOHnews) March 9, 2023
Racketeering conspiracy, or RICO, is a charge more often associated with organized crime bosses than elected leaders and lobbyists.
“This is the first time in the country that any of us can tell that these racketeering charges have been used in the political setting,” said former prosecutor Steve Goodin, who said RICO is most often charged against major drug operations, gang members and enterprises involving human trafficking and prostitution.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter had the last word in her rebuttal closing argument on Wednesday, urging jurors to convict because Householder and Borges had violated the public's trust and hidden their behavior through a purposely complex scheme.
“Mr. Householder abused that trust and Mr. Borges helped him do it," Painter said. "There was a reason for all of this concealment - because what they were doing was wrong. This wasn’t typical political activity and they knew it.”
Then U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black urged Householder and Borges to go home and "do productive things," while they await sentencing from him.
Jurors heard sprawling and sometimes repetitive closing arguments for more than six hours on Tuesday, as attorneys tried to summarize six weeks of testimony by more than 25 witnesses and involving hundreds of documents.
In this same courtroom, the same three-person prosecutorial team won a conviction against former city councilman PG Sittenfeld for bribery eight months ago for taking $40,000 in campaign donations in exchange for support of a development deal.
But experts say the two cases are vastly different.
“This is big league corruption,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven about the current statehouse case. “The City Hall corruption was consequential, but it was a few people and a relatively small pile of money.”
The ramifications of the jury's decision may be felt from the Columbus statehouse to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The speakership in Ohio is a very powerful office, it has a rather comprehensive ability to schedule bills, to stop bills, to move pieces around the chessboard,” Niven said. “I think there’s been a sense that speakers could operate without limit, without any kind of parameters around them. This case is ultimately a test of that.”
The most damaging testimony against Borges came from his former friend Tyler Fehrman, who went to the FBI after he said Borges tried to bribe him for information about the ballot campaign to overturn HB 6, where he worked. Fehrman wore a wire for the FBI and many of those conversations were played at trial, including one in which Borges described Householder's relationship with FirstEnergy as an "unholy alliance."
While Borges wasn't part of the alleged criminal enterprise when it began in 2016, he allegedly joined later on to help defeat the ballot referendum and preserve the nuclear bailout, and get paid through FirstEnergy money, Painter said.
"They’re all pigs at the trough, there’s no reason for them not to get there's," Painter said about Borges.
But Borges' attorney, Karl Schneider, said his client was never part of "Team Householder," that the two men were never friends, and he was never part of a conspiracy.